The Great Debaters


Oscar Bait. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, which refers to movies that transparently use trite ploys in an attempt to snag that iconic gold statue reserved for Hollywood’s best. As perfect example, look no further than a film like The Butler, which was shamelessly littered with a host of notable actors, from Robin Williams to Jane Fonda. While Fences also boasts a laudable cast, it is not to be mistaken as Oscar bait. Adapted from playwright August Wilson’s critically acclaimed play, it features actor/director Denzel Washington (The Magnificent Seven) in a starring role and behind the camera for the third time. The part is a familiar one for Washington – a reprisal of the Broadway turn that earned him a Tony. Perhaps it was his comfort in the role that resulted in a tour-de-force performance, one of the best of Washington’s career.

Fences is set in the 1950s, giving a glimpse into the small world of Troy Maxson, a hardworking family man who thanklessly toils away as a sanitation worker to provide for his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis, Suicide Squad) and their teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers). Troy’s simple, salt-of-the-earth nature belies a brash, booming personality that consumes any space he occupies. He is a constant source of joy and begrudging amusement for Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, Two for One), who also works on the garbage truck. Troy has an adult son Lyons from a previous marriage, and he and Rose care intermittently for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, The Purge: Election Year), who suffered a head injury during the War and became subsequently disabled. These players set the stage for the story and establish the foundation for Troy’s life.

Fences cannot be dissected thoroughly enough in this space, so I will just touch on the themes from the film that struck me as most memorable. When we first meet Troy it’s clear that he feels boxed in by life. He has frequent joy, but overall he feels frustrated and bitter about his current station, particularly when he ponders the lack of opportunity for growth at work or any prospect of financial prosperity. Home is a source of contentment because he loves his devoted wife, but home also represents the confining reality of missed opportunities. Sometimes life is a result of things you’ve made happen, and sometimes life seems like something that just happens to you whether you like it or not. Troy, who once had aspirations of playing baseball in the Negro leagues, is filled with bitterness and regret at the dreams that never came to fruition.

The better the film, the more I feel that I can write about it, so I’m forced here to give short shrift to many aspects of Fences that are worthy of further discussion, including the dynamic between father and son, selfishness and its resultant betrayal within a marriage, and the emotional, psychological underpinnings that give rise to it all. Ms. Davis has already won a Golden Globe for her performance, and she is in excellent company here. Washington seems to reserve his directing talents for only the richest African American stories (see Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and Fences continues that trend. This is a must-see for Denzel Washington fans, and doesn’t that include just about everyone? Grade: A.


Red Tails

African-American cinema is a tricky thing.  There is enough diversity within the genre to avoid painting it with a broad brush, but there are certain negative things that come to mind when you say something is a “Black” movie.  Does this mean there will be buffoonery, and is there something wrong with laughing at ourselves, as long as we’re the ones telling the joke?  I think our experiences run the gamut, but unfortunately some of the movies that are most profitable aren’t the most edifying.  Movies like Norbit and any one featuring Madea come to mind as examples of movies  that I tend to avoid.  Every now and then, however – a movie comes along that is worthy of our collective attention.  I think Red Tails was such a movie.  More than just a “Black” movie, it is an American story.

Red Tails is the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation unit that served with distinction in World War II; despite initial reluctance to place the soldiers in combat situations.  Jim Crow’s insidious reach extended to the armed forces, and Black soldiers were deemed inferior due to the bigoted perception that they lacked the mental aptitude and courage for war.  Of course nothing could have been further from the truth, and when the airmen were given their opportunity to serve as bomber escorts, they made the most of their chance.  Comprised largely of the 332nd fighter group, the “Tuskegee Airmen” came to be known as Red Tails due to the unique scarlet markings on the tails of their planes.   Displaying uncommon bravery, the Red Tails proved to be heroic and victorious in their abilities.  Red Tails brings the story of the airmen to a new generation, and it is an important chapter in American history, not just Black history.  Produced by George Lucas, the movie reportedly had a difficult time being made because studios doubted the profitability of telling this story.  I’m happy that Lucas was willing to personally finance its creation, though I wish the movie reflected more of his deft story-telling ability.

Red Tails boasts a young, talented cast whose camaraderie and chemistry radiated off the screen.  Nate Parker (The Great Debaters), Tristan Wilds (The Wire), Terrence Howard (Law & Order: LA), David Oyelowo (The Help), and Cuba Gooding, Jr (The Hit List) were just a few notable cast members.  Parker and Oyelowo had the most screen time and gave the most inspired performances as “Easy” and “Lightning,” respectively.  Easy is the more level-headed and practical leader, while Lightning plays the flashy showboat.  Through it all, they are loyal friends who have each other’s backs in the air and on the ground.  I don’t want to nitpick, but this is a review, right?  Everything wasn’t perfect, and I had an issue with a couple of the casting decisions.  I adore young Tristan Wilds, and I think he’s talented.  However, I thought an older actor would have been better suited for his role of “Junior.”  He looks like he’s about 19, yet his character is supposed to have a wife and child and is told by another soldier that he is the bravest and best he’s ever met.  I guess that is possible, but his character’s backstory seems like it would belong to a more seasoned individual.  Similarly, Cuba Gooding’s role as Major Stance was a little derivative.  We’ve seen the grisly old pipe-chewing commander before.  I could have sworn I’ve seen Gene Hackman or somebody do this already.  Gooding seemed to be over-acting a lot of the time, and it got old.  Terrence Howard wasn’t as irksome as usual, so thank God for small cinematic favors.

I’ve found that you can never underestimate what the younger generation doesn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there are some folks who saw this movie and learned something new.  That alone is reason enough for me to give it my stamp of approval; because this is a story that needed to be told.  HBO made a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen years ago, but it needed a grand stage.  In this day and age our military more accurately reflects the tapestry of American life, but it is nice to have a reminder of our less than glorious past sometimes to appreciate what we have now.  G.I. Joe? No, the Tuskegee Airmen were real American heroes.